Mark Thompson, presenter of Stargazing Live and The Alan Titchmarsh Show, and author of A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos, talks to Katherine MacAlister about life, the universe and everything…
Mark Thompson has 55,000 Twitter followers ready and waiting for his latest observations and sightings of space and the stars.
That he has stumbled on a hugely untapped audience is obvious and why it hasn’t been done before is as interesting, but either way Mark Thompson has become the people’s astronomer and his own star is beginning to shine as brightly as those he follows so avidly.
“People have done it before – Patrick Moore for many, many years, but to a different audience. This is more contemporary, fun, fast and interesting, the message just needed to be tweaked,” he tells me.
As the first amateur to be voted onto the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society in its history, his success is being recognised by the academics as much as the public.
“Professionals analyse data which isn’t what I wanted to do, but for the last 30 years I’ve been looking through a telescope at the sky and the universe beyond. So when I was elected as an amateur – well it was because of my work in the media to make astronomy popular,” he explains.
And when you consider Mark had a computerised observatory in his last house, you’ll realise how fanatical he is about our solar system.
“You have to be a bit geeky” the handsome presenter laughs, when I pick him up on that, “and if everyone was the same, I would be out of work. Because a lot of people are interested but don’t have the time to commit to astronomy, too busy rushing around.
“So my goal is to educate people who are not exposed to astronomy and make it relevant, because there is so much stuff that’s easy to see if you know where to look, even to the naked eye, and you don’t need to spend thousands on equipment.”
Even so, Mark had all but given up on a career as a media astronomer, and retrained as a pilot, when he finally got a break as an advisor on BBC’s The One Show.
“The One Show picked up on some films I’d made and it’s grown from there. So I feel very privileged and have done some amazing things as a result, which I’d never have got to do.”
Interesting that he chose to be a pilot – still air-based then? “Yes,” he laughs, “and I’m as fascinated by the weather as I am about the sky, and remember I was training going on night flights above the clouds when the sun was coming up. Magic.”
All of this thanks to his father taking his 10-year-old son to an astronomy club, in Norfolk, where he still lives: “We looked at Saturn and I can still see that picture now in my head – cool, crisp with rings – and that was it for me. So you need to show people the big stuff and give them a lot of bang for their buck.”
Sounds like with so much on his plate, even he struggles with that now. “When it gets dark and the kids have gone to bed, I’ll pop outside to look at The Milky Way, the odd planet and moon. I always try to make time for the stars.”
Mark Thompson will be discussing his new book A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos at Blackwells on Wednesday, February 20, at 7pm. Call 01865 333623.